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'I turned tragedy into charity'

The grief of losing a child is something no parent should ever have to bear. One brave mother, Dana Al Askari, tells us how she has channelled the experience of her loss into improving the lives of other sick children

By Louisa Wilkins, Features Editor, Aquarius magazine
1 Jul 2012 | 12:00 am
  • Dana Al Askari

    "From my personal experience, I've realised how vital it is for the community to come together and help make people's lives easier during this hard time."

    Source:Grace Paras/ANM

"In April 2008, my ten-year-old daughter got an earache. Within a month, Dania had been diagnosed with a rare form of paediatric cancer. I left my 18-month-old and 15-year-old sons here in Dubai with my husband and took Dania to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

"Dania had 12 rounds of chemotherapy and each round of treatment took one week. We would arrive at the hospital every morning at 7am and we would be there until 7, 8, 9pm every night while Dania had chemotherapy and blood transfusions. The next week, Dania would invariably get ill with an infection and be admitted as an inpatient. Then she would have a week off before starting again. So each round took about a month.

"In the US, they have something called a child life team, which is a crew of psychologists, social workers, therapists, tutors and entertainers who visit the children every day. They know and believe that positive mental health is vital for physical health. I saw the difference it made to the children myself - Dania loved the clown doctors, who would make fun of the nurses, the other doctors and even the parents. She also loved playing Guitar Hero with her doctors and doing the cooking activities. Sometimes she would go upstairs to the adults' ward and play bingo - she actually won some really cool prizes! Every year they have a graduation ceremony where children who have kicked cancer come back and get a diploma from their doctors... It gave the children, and us parents, a glimmer of hope.

"Every Friday evening, a volunteer called Frank would come around the hospital ward with the Candy Cart - a trolley piled up with candy and gifts for the kids. The children all got really excited waiting for Frank to arrive and it boosted the atmosphere on the ward. It was amazing to see how it lifted their spirits and gave them something to look forward to.

"When Dania's chemotherapy ended and we were told her disease was in remission, we returned to Dubai. A year later it was back in the form of leukaemia and a few months later, in June 2010, Dania passed away - a week before her 13th birthday.

Paying it forward

"Back in Dubai, later in 2010, I was talking to my childhood friend - Janine Freiha - and I was telling her about Frank and his Candy Cart. She said, ‘Why don't we do it here?' I know someone at Friends of Cancer Patients, a UAE-based support network for cancer patients and their families. They managed to get us into Dubai Hospital, who were very accommodating. I spoke to a friend who works in restaurants and she kindly donated us a dessert trolley. Another friend, who is artistic, painted the trolley and decorated it with buttons. She did a really good job.

"In January 2011, we made our first visit to the paediatric cancer ward at Dubai Hospital. We took candy, books, puzzles and board games. At first, people didn't know what we were doing, but week by week they got more used to us. One mother would tell another mother and word would spread. Now it's normal and we actually get scolded if we don't go.

"Janine and I love doing it. When we go, some children are too tired to react, others will just say a simple thank you, or give a fragile smile, and others will give us a huge hug. It's amazing when you see a child, who is lying in bed with no energy, find the will to get up. One time, we could hear a child screaming in her room. The nurses said she had just woken up from her anaesthesia and pain was setting in, but when we walked in the crying stopped. It's so important for them to feel positive and to have something to look forward to.

Help us help them

"The children are often on the ward for months at a time. Many of them are from underprivileged families who can't afford to buy them toys, books, laptops, DVDs and treats. The Candy Cart costs about Dh2,000 per week to stock. Until recently Janine and I have been funding it ourselves, but now Toys 'R' Us is supporting our initiative, which is great as we can go every week and choose items that we know the kids want.

"Most of all we need volunteers. When Janine and I are away, or when we are ill, nobody replaces us. Also, if there were more of us, it would be great to be able to spend more time with the children, reading, playing and doing activities - it would be great for the children and would also give the mothers a break.

"From my personal experience, I've realised how vital it is for the community to come together and help make people's lives easier during this hard time. My dream is to make these children feel that they are not isolated from society - that there are people who are concerned about their wellbeing. We want to bring them sparks of hope and the simple laughter of childhood. Hope, faith and courage."

Find more photos of Dana and the kids she helps on the Aquarius Edit July App.

Do you know an inspirational woman? Let us know

Email aquariusedit@gulfnews.com

Fact Box

If you are interested in supporting the Candy Cart, either through volunteering or donations, visit the Friends of Cancer Parents website (www.focp.ae), or email Dana at dana@focp.ae.

By Louisa Wilkins, Features Editor, Aquarius magazine

By Louisa Wilkins, Features Editor, Aquarius magazine